The city's white landmarks were soaked in sunlight. As my taxi driver and I made our way in the early morning hours through Vienna's serpentine streets, we unwound from the city center the same way the districts unfold, like the spirals of a shell. I traced the historic route around the Ringstrasse to find myself amidst the cultural crossroads that is Vienna. Groggy from the red-eye and jet-lag, the realization that I would be spending the next ten months of my life in an unfamiliar city both thrilled and terrified me. Armed with the purpose and perspective of the Fulbright scholars who came before me, I was determined to find my voice in a foreign language and my place in a foreign land.
Initially, my decision to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to Austria was fueled by my passion for animal welfare. I designed my Fulbright grant to study the Austrian systems of organic farming and use what I learned to prompt reform in the U.S. The direction of my study, combined with the chance to teach English in an Austrian secondary school, provided the opportunity through which I realized a greater purpose of international exchange. Though I spent countless hours translating Austrian law, compiling statistics, and analyzing economic and social conditions, I learned the most during my Fulbright Fellowship from people's stories.
In German, our only common language, my roommate taught me about her experience growing up in Bosnia. She spoke of the bigotry she witnessed and how blind intolerance of different ethnicities and religions has the power to destroy friendships and families. She told me how she watched as people turned against their neighbors, more concerned with their differences than what persecution because of those differences could do to a community. Though at times we grasped for words, she communicated the power of her story clearly.
An elderly Austrian woman in a tiny village taught me firsthand the deep, lasting damage intolerance can have on a culture. She approached me as I wore my traditional German Dirndl dress and told me, with tears in her eyes, what a great joy it would have been to her mother to see me embracing my German heritage in public. Her words provided a window to how crimes against humanity assault both their victims and the communities where they originate.
Though these stories are not my own, they inspired me to commit to advocating for human rights and intercultural appreciation. My experience in Austria taught me the true value of international exchange: to see the world through the eyes of others so we can better understand our responsibility to each other.
Upon the streets of Vienna, I had found a deeper passion and purpose; in leaving Austria I felt as though I'd lost my way. Yet I realized the stories I had heard had no real endings; their themes continue all around me, every day. The effects of intolerance and cruelty and oppression are very present in my own community, and by taking action I transform my own sense of disillusionment to a commitment to do more. By helping other gain their voice, by listening to their stories and understanding their situations, I am also empowered.
People’s stories mean something to me; they are why I chose a degree in history, they are why I wanted to take part in an international exchange, and they are what inspire me to become a lawyer. We live in a global community, and we cannot divorce the value of others from our own value, the experiences of others from our own experiences. We all play a part in the human story; our actions determine what role that will be. The Fulbright Program allows people to not only learn other's histories, but also shape how their stories are written. Most significantly, the Fulbright Program allows us to ensure that the human story is one of compassion, justice, mutual understanding, and dignity.
Rachel Haney is a graduate of Pitzer College and studied at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna as a US Fulbright Student in 2011–12.